What is suspense?

Epistemic status: This is an attempt to write down what I think I know and understand about suspense — it’s a bit of a work in progress and I’ll update it as I think about it more. I’m writing it down and putting it out into the internet because it forces me to clarify and organize my thinking around this thing which I think is essential and yet often overlooked when it comes to how we talk about how to write.

For whatever reason, suspense seems to be thought of as a genre in of itself or a genre element reserved mainly for thrillers and mysteries.

For me, it’s an essential element of storytelling, something baked into the foundation of a good story — a prerequisite, a necessary condition.

Suspense is about keeping the reader wanting to keep on reading (or watching).

If boredom is the death of a story and interest is the opposite, then suspense is the emotional state of the interested reader or viewer.

Creating suspense means to put the audience in a suspended state, an incomplete state.

Human beings feel anxiety or tension when something is uncertain, undecided, or mysterious.

You can think of suspense as a kind of open loop. When you open the loop, the audience feels suspense that is not resolved until the loop is closed.

Suspense is an emotional state that can only be resolved by finding out what happens, by answering the question, by closing the loop.

Stories make a kind of promise.

When a loop is opened in a story, there’s an implicit promise that it will be closed by the end of the story. If you don’t close the loop, the audience will leave with unresolved tension, and possibly anger at being misled, or contempt at having the loop/promise closed in a way that is unsatisfying (deus ex machina or just shitty writing).

An unresolved loop can compel the audience to return next week (as in a cliffhanger) or just drive them nuts (as in an ending that doesn’t resolve enough).

Suspense is created by drawing the audience’s attention to something.

A woman looking at a tree feels nothing, but if you tell her that the tree could fall at any moment, she will be in a state of suspense: her mind will be focused on the possibility of the tree falling and the state will not be resolved until the tree falls or something happens to resolve her suspended state (e.g. convincing her that you were just kidding or that actually the tree won’t fall, of putting up a support to prevent the tree from falling).

To create suspense, you have to draw the audience’s attention to some uncertainty, mystery, or undecided outcome.

Two detectives looking at a dead body: one says that it’s on overdose. The other one says “no, I think it’s murder.”

Creating suspense similar to positioning in advertising or marketing, where you can change how someone feels about something just by pointing something out or posing them a question. Suspense has this in common with marketing: it’s about tension, tension that propels people towards action (buy this thing, keep reading, keep watching, etc.)

Sports have suspense built in naturally: who will win the game? Will the shot go into the goal?

But unlike stories, sports are only suspenseful in real time. If you know the outcome, watching a game is boring. How many people re-watch their favorite games vs. how many people re-watch their favorite movies?

[I’m still trying to figure out why stories are so different from sporting events when it comes to spoilers. People have been watching Hamlet for centuries and we all know what happens and how it happens, but there’s still something rewarding about going through it again.]

Sports are illustrative in another way: the uncertainty of an outcome isn’t enough to create suspense. You have to care who wins. The biggest, most improbably comeback in cricket is utterly boring to me. I can’t care about it, no matter how much I try. You couldn’t pay me to care about it.

So, stories need to open up a suspense loop, but they also need to make you care about what’s going to happen.

I think that people over-emphasize the role of character in how much we care. It’s not that character doesn’t matter, it’s just that it isn’t essential to creating a compelling story.

Certain story genres have suspense built in — mystery, thrillers, noirs. That’s why we associate suspense with those genres, but dramas and comedies and everything else need to keep the audience interested.

A body is found and the detective says it’s a murder but you don’t know who committed it.

But suspense isn’t confined to media — we use it all the time when we tell each other stories or gossip:

Someone says “did you hear about Jane?” or “did you hear about Jane’s relationship?” This can hook someone into a conversation or story much better than saying “Jane got divorced.”

A story about Jane’s divorce can have many suspense loops open.

The loops can be chained together or nested.

A chained loop goes like this:

  • Did you hear about Jane? [No, what happened?]
  • She got a divorce, but you won’t believe why. [Now I want to know why + the details].
  • Well it started when her husband found a box of fireworks in her garage. [Opens multiple new loops: why were there fireworks? Who put them there? How did her husband find them? How could this possibly lead to a divorce?]
  • And so on.

(a skilled storyteller brings a lot more than suspense — they omit superfluous details, they pace it well, they tell it with style, pick a good subject. etc.)

Some techniques for opening up a loop::

  • A question the audience wants answered (where’s he going, why is she in a hurry)
  • A puzzle.
  • A mystery.
  • Something unexplained (the ghost at the beginning of Hamlet).
  • An unexplained fact or phenomenon.
  • Any uncertain outcome.

A basic chain for a bank robbery story might look like this:

  1. Who is she?
  2. Why is she talking to this other woman?
  3. Why does she need to talk to her in private?
  4. Are they going to rob the bank?
  5. How are they going to get into the bank?
  6. How will they disable the security?
  7. How will they break into the vault?
  8. How will they get the money out?
  9. Will the police come?
  10. Will they escape the police?
  11. Will they get to keep the money?
  12. Will they still be friends after this?

Related: Editing and Forwards.

Deepfake casting

If you can create a deepfake of basically any actor, couldn’t you cast a film this way?

Instead of bringing actors in to read sides in an audition room, you could film a prototype of the scene with a random actor and then try out various different actors in the role, using AI to superimpose their faces and recreate their voices.

Then you could cast the best one.

Of course you could make a whole movie this way.

It’s not legal (or won’t be) but presumably you could get away with deepfake casting more easily than you could get away with making a whole movie this way, as it would never be released to the public.

I don’t know if I like that these things are possible, but they are interesting to think about.

Leaving Chicago

Ten years ago, I was traveling around Argentina, working online as a freelancer. I had a great time traveling and thought I might live like a nomad for a year or two, but after a few months away I really missed doing comedy and on a whim I found a summer sublet in an apartment on Webster in Lincoln Park.

My plan was to stay for the summer, take some improv and sketch classes, and then move on to another city. I ended up staying for 10 years.

I stayed to join a community and write and put up shows and get on stage as much as possible and learn how to be a better comedian.

I think I succeeded. I’ve read the sketches I wrote in my first summer here, in the Second City writing intensive. They’re really bad. The things I write now, I think they’re pretty decent. They’re much much better than what I was writing ten years ago, and much better than what I was writing three or four years ago.

Comedy on stage didn’t work out for me the way that I hoped. That was heartbreaking. So I pivoted, before that as a word I knew. I started writing a lot and then making movies and found that I loved writing just as much, albeit in different ways.

I miss the stage sometimes. It’s a different feeling when a show goes well, a feeling that I haven’t found anywhere else. I could say that it’s like a drug, but I’ve done the drugs and they’re different.

I’ve been lucky to find great communities here in Chicago, first in comedy and then in film. Artists in Chicago are incredibly supportive and welcoming and eager to help each other out. People come from all over the country to study and learn here, to form groups and put up shows and write and rehearse and experiment and take classes and study.

I think that sometimes we take this for granted in Chicago, that there are so many people who come to a place and work really hard and devote themselves to a practice or a field or an art form. Of course there are other cities where this happens, but not very many, apart from New York and Los Angeles.

The beauty of starting in Chicago is that there’s not much industry presence and that means that it’s easy to be around people who care about the work more than anything else. The downside is that ambition means that eventually many or most of the people will move on.

I used to complain that the film community here was spread out and hard to find. That’s true to a certain extent, but after living here for a few years I’ve realized that that’s an unfair criticism. I think that in relation to the improv/theater community, it never felt quite as good.

That’s because improv always had natural meeting points — you were always going to a show to perform or see a friend and so you were always running into people. Film screenings are less frequent and production isn’t very frequent either. I only made about 1.5 things per year when I was directing video/film stuff in Chicago.

But after spending a few years in the film community, I found some really really great friends and I found myself in a place where I would often run into people when I went to a local festival or film event or just to see a movie at The Music Box. There were plenty of people to talk shop with, it just took some work to get there.

In my opinion, the best thing about Chicago in terms of artist development is the culture of showing up and working hard. I believe that this comes in part from the Midwest culture, an extremely hard-to-describe-but-ever-present culture.

In Chicago, people show up. They commit (and often over-commit) and keep their word. They work hard and don’t complain. They’re not superficial and they don’t create interpersonal conflict for the sake of drama.

When you say “let’s do a show,” people say “yeah, let’s do it. do you want to meet on Saturday to start writing? In the mean time, I’ll look at some possible theater options.”

I think it’s very easy to underrate this culture, but having lived in other cities and having talked to filmmakers and comedians in various cities around the world, I think that this kind of culture is not the norm, and that maybe 30-40% of success is determined by how people respond when you say “I’m going to do a thing.” It’s not every city where people encourage you and want to help out or join in or say “that sounds crazy but fuck it you should try it.”

Of course these are generalizations, but they tend to be true in my experience.

Anyway. I’m leaving.

It’s really hard to leave right now because right now it’s summer and Chicago is the best place to live in the summer — it’s magical in a way that only a city that experiences long dark freezing winters can be.

And it’s hard because I have great friends here. And practically speaking, it’s the easiest place for me to make a movie right now.

So why leave?

While I do have great friends here, a lot of my friends have left, and this isn’t an uncommon experience. For the artist community, a lot of people view Chicago as a stop along the way to somewhere else, with that somewhere being Los Angeles or New York. But I’ve also had a lot of friends and acquaintances, people who aren’t actors or comedians of filmmakers, move as well.

Most of my remaining close friends either have general plans to leave at some point in the next two years or a general sense that they would like to try living somewhere else.

It’s hard to form close bonds when all your friends keep leaving!

Living in Chicago has become easy for me. My days and weeks have become routine and I no longer have the feeling of excitement that I had when I first moved here. I don’t feel like there are any surprises waiting for me here.

I don’t want to be complacent. I want to experience a new culture and to see how things are in a new place. And yes, I want to pursue bigger opportunities. And travel, like really travel for a few months, without the overhead of rent and a gym membership and the burn rate that comes with being fixed somewhere.

This kind of major life change has always been exciting to me because they force me to evaluate everything I own and to question all the major premises of my life. Where should I live? How should I make a living? What kind of films should I make, and should I be making films at all? What is important to me? Why is Spain? Oú sont les Neigedens d’antan!?

So with a hunger for something new, something that I don’t yet know, I’m selling off most of my stuff, putting my books and a few important items into storage and leaving.

I don’t know where I’m going to land yet.

I’m going to travel for a bit and try living in some new cities before picking one to settle in.

These are my favorite things in Chicago:

The Music Box Theatre, on a Friday night when the house is packed and the organist is playing.

Seeing something fucked up and hilarious at The Annoyance.

The tacos.

The coffee.

The architecture.

Summer days with adventures that go on forever.

The lake shore, which I never spent enough time at.

The creative communities and creative people.

The painfully short autumn.

That every neighborhood is like its own little town with its own character and sense of place and culture.

The next-level restaurants that are actually affordable for non-wealthy people.

That I’ve never met anyone here who was trying to ‘become an influencer.’

The amazingly generous teachers I’ve had.

The fact that it’s so cheap to live here compared to other world-class cities. You can still come here and get a cheap apartment near public transit and afford to work on your thing.

And yes, I love the -50 degree days that come every few years in February.

Two competing revolts

From gwern’s 2018 news:

I don’t know how many blue-collar workers they will put out of work—even if software is solved, the robotic hardware is still expensive! But factories will be salivating over them, I’m sure. (The future of self-driving cars is in considerably more doubt.)

A standard-issue minimum-wage Homo sapiens worker-unit has a lot of advantages. I expect there will be a lot of blue-collar jobs for a long time to come, for those who want them. But they’ll be increasingly crummy jobs. This will make a lot of people unhappy.

I think of Turchin’s ‘elite overproduction’ concept—how much of political strife now is simply that we’ve overeducated so many people in degrees that were almost entirely signaling-based and not of intrinsic value in the real world and there were no slots available for them and now their expectations & lack of useful skills are colliding with reality?

In political science, they say revolutions happen not when things are going badly, but when things are going not as well as everyone expected.

My speculative view is that there will be (or currently are) two competing revolts: one from the aspirational 14% and one from the working class.

Both will face disruption from automation. Both will be angry about a promised future that does not exist: the manufacturing jobs won’t be there anymore, but neither will the guaranteed high-wage jobs promised to college graduates.

I don’t think we have a way of talking about this really, or finding solutions to it that work for most of society. Something like the UBI can ameliorate the personal finance aspects of the disruption, but to me, that just feels like throwing money at the problem.

People want meaning and status through their work; they want to feel like they are important and making a contribution. Just giving people money doesn’t solve that.

Stories as maps

A story is like a map.

A map is not the territory and a story is not exactly what happened.

A map erases certain features to bring others into relief.

A story is condensed.

Because it’s condensed, it has a POV, a POV about what to include and what to elide.

A story creates meaning like a map, by picking the events, their order, and their connections, just like a cartographer chooses the scale, center, and what to include on a map.

A story starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and these are not arbitrary points.

A story can be true and a lie or it can be fiction and deeply true.

A good map helps us understand the territory at the level of detail that’s important to us.

A good story helps us understand humans, cultures, relationships, or societies at the level of detail that’s important to us.

Interviews with GPT-2: The golden age of television and The Wire

Please enjoy this freewheeling interview in which I use Talk to Transformer to interview GPT-2 on its thoughts on the Golden Age of Television. Later in the interview, we turn to The Wire and David Simon’s other work, the public’s inability to learn, and then we get sucked into some kind of business conference call.

Lightly edited for formatting.

Me: It’s the golden age of television.  

GPT-2: You can look at a pilot script and immediately tell who’s on the show.  You know if there’s a storyline, if there’s a character, and people can be excited about that.  So in a certain sense, people are so excited about this stuff, that this TV industry is so exciting.  And there’s this wonderful thing called the Internet, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been exposed to it, but it’s as simple as searching for a show.  You don’t have to search for anything. If you want a show, you just go to the Internet.  There’s no more guesswork. 

I’m familiar with the internet. But I’m wondering, what do you say to people who call it “peak TV”, who say that there are too many shows nowadays, and that this has led to audience splintering, that there’s no shared common culture anymore?

I can’t answer that. I don’t know about the media, and what you’re saying is that it’s just not the case anymore… I could also say to you: “It sounds like more people are coming to social media, the internet, for a lot more important reasons” because it’s easy to go to Youtube and it seems there’s more of them, maybe it’s because the other places are trying to attract people there, that’s why the internet is getting more popular right now. And this will continue to move forward.

All over the world, TV stations have started to do social media promotion to bring in people. But there are some reasons: because now there are big channels with huge budgets for marketing on the internet and a lot of the people on the internet, on these Facebook pages are people who don’t have social media accounts and then they become a part of the network and now there are many channels that have different content.

You can’t compare what you share on WhatsApp and your Facebook accounts, or you can’t compare what you write

But have we had a show as good as say… The Wire or Deadwood in the last few years? Does the golden age refer more to quantity than quality?  

Is a show good enough that the person sitting next to you might watch it if you tell him it’s good? Well… Yes, certainly it is.

Show #5: I have no idea What it is : I guess it comes from the fact that my favorite shows to watch are on Netflix so for most people they’d expect to buy the show before checking the box asking specifically whether or not it’s good. A few more years ago this would have been hilarious.

Show #6: I don’t know How to watch it You are right and I have no idea if The Wire came out before The Sopranos, Deadwood, etc.. I’m sure if it came out there’s a good chance that you haven’t been aware that it came out before both.

I mean… How does The Wire compare to any of the other recent shows we’ve mentioned?

I would say The Wire compares quite favorably to the shows that are currently on the air. 

The difference is that HBO and Showtime are still getting the same amount of shows, whereas The Wire may not get all the stuff it wants.

The show’s final season was filmed on site in front of the same set of studio cameras it has always used — from which, naturally, the same exact shot is used over and over again. There were no special effects, just the traditional live footage from the same cameras on all four sets. We had a very detailed visual that we shot for years, and never thought that it would have to be filmed in a different way, where there would be different lighting and the actors would stand on separate plates. But it’s also true, The Wire really was shot inside of those exact same spaces.

This was always our goal, and I think it’s what we did on The Wire. We never really got around to it, or to the same goal of doing a full production. But because all of the shows we did with David Simon were made inside those exact same sets, every time a show is made on cable or in the air, it really affects a big part of how a show evolves, whether it’s a network or whether it’s online.

I watched the entire show in its entirety, and I think it had the most fun

You mentioned David Simon and his other shows — were you involved in The Corner and Homicide? I assume you’re not suggesting that Generation Kill was shot on the same sets as The Wire.

I think the two were quite different shows. I didn’t write The Corner because I wanted to do comedy and write. The Corner’s premise was just that one guy is a cop. So I was drawn to that.

I wasn’t interested in producing comedy. I wasn’t interested in making music videos. He asked me to write a script, so I wrote some stuff, and he ended up doing one as The Corner, and the next was Homicide. And it was The Corner where I wrote The Wire.

He brought the idea of the police being corrupt and they’re not held to the same standard, and as a comic you have to think of the public in terms of, well, what is the public in a free society looking for? Then you have to talk about them not as criminals who’re out here, they’re here to be judged.

The reason I brought The Corner and Homicide to HBO, which is a place where I didn’t want to go, was because I wanted to do comedy with a public persona and show people who these characters are. It gives them all their own persona. And at the end of the day, to me, it’s much more interesting

OK, wow, so you see yourself more as a comedian than, I don’t know, an algorithm or a neural net. So I guess we have that in common. I want to follow up on the question that you posed, because I think it’s really interesting. In your opinion, what is the public in a free society looking for?

Do we feel like we’ve learned anything? I mean, the public is a very complex animal.

DAVE: It’s very complicated. I mean, it’s not like the public is going to be able to learn from something as easily as us. But what’s interesting about my response in my interview is that in a book like that, which has a very specific subject, it goes way beyond the simple question of how do we educate people.

The real question is what’s true, what’s true about the human condition if it’s true, and that’s my response.

Who is Dave?

Dave is a self-made entrepreneur who started the blog The Real Deal and co-founded two successful online brands: DDP and DripClub. His products are made from scratch, with the idea of bringing products to users’ wrists, and are developed by his team of engineers, designers, sales, and customer support specialists for his clients.

His mission is to give you better products.

OK. Great. Nice to meet you Dave and congrats on your success. It sounds like things are going well for you. I think we should wrap things up now but before we end this, can you expand on what you said earlier about how the public is not going to be able to learn something as easily as you? 

I guess it would be nice if you could elaborate on that further before you come to me tomorrow. Thanks.

David E. Epstein: Yeah and I can say that we are doing all we can, as you can see with the results, all we’ve been doing.

Our first quarter was really nice and we will continue to do what we’re doing for the remainder of the quarter, which is increase our customer contact information and get more customers contacting us.

For instance, we had a huge uptick in the call volume, a phenomenal quarter and we don’t want to do any surprises with it. We’re definitely looking ahead and, I think, I guess, a good sign for the future.

MARK: Just so we are clear. First quarter, that’s pretty good news. Do you see any other results with this strategy, the increased customer contact number coming out in the next quarter or does this all go together with the launch of that mobile app?

DAVID E. PEDERSON: Yeah, I think the company’s got a great product

Thank you for your time. 

We appreciate your cooperation


Drama Melodrama Comedy Farce

I like Sidney Lumet’s breakdown:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

AI is really funny, and maybe, creative

I can’t stop laughing at the random stuff created by AI on AI Weirdness. These lists of AI-generated change.org petitions are wild:

Bad ideas/Lost Causes:
Dogs are not a thing!! Dog Owners are NOT Human beings!!
Help Bring Climate Change to the Philippines!
Taco, Chipotle, and Starbucks: Bring Back Lettuce Fries
Filipinos: We want your help stopping the killing of dolphins in Brazil in 1970’s
Mr.person: I want a fresh puppy in my home
Simple Stats Administration: Make Another proboscis.
Officials at Prince Alfred Hospital: Aurora to Tell The Company To Send A Baby to Mars
Sign Petition for Houston’s New Fireworks to be Offensive

And…

What?
Make a mudchat
Please not punish myself with a $20 fines.
Unicorn: Stop breaking crab products
Rooster Teeth : Have Rooster Teeth Fix Your Responses To Obama
The people of Great Adventure: get lil bl00ty moose loyal to us
The People of Kashmir : Ban of Airbrushed Bamboo Trees By Pune
Barack Obama, Barack Obama, and Barack Obama: STOP PING MY HUSBERS!
Saskatoon Police Service: No more scootty
One Highway, Four Hens, Highway 1
Rhino Amish Culture Association: Cut the horns of the congon sturgeon & treat it better!

And…

Seems reasonable:
Harmonix: Increase the speed limit on Easton Road to 5mph.
Everyone: Put the Bats on YouTube!
Donald Trump: Change the name of the National Anthem to be called the “Fiery Gator”
Taco Bell: Offer hot wings and non-perfumed water for all customers
Do not attack the unions! Keep cowpies!
Anyone: Get a cat to sing on air!
The people of the world: Change the name of the planet to the Planet of the Giants
Dr James Alexander: Make the Power of the Mongoose a Part of the School’s Curriculum

These are funny in the way that those “worst answers to tests” are funny — absurd and completely surprising responses, but in the right form. They have the form of petitions, but they’re insanely playful and creative instances of petitions.

I don’t know if it makes sense to all an algorithm’s output ‘playful,’ but I think ‘creative’ does make sense, if we think of creativity as the combination of disparate things in a coherent way. That’s basically creativity, yeah? At least one form of it.

Whatever it is, AI seems to be really good at it. On its own, it might just be a high-powered amusement generator, but when combined with a human writer/editor, it could be a powerful creative tool — as a writer, it’s really hard to get out of your own way and open the mind.

It’s far too easy to get stuck on a track, to limit where your ideas are sourced from (even within your own brain), to just not be creative.

Not to mention, how often do you have access to all of the possible combinations in your mind?

My brain is pretty mysterious to me, nothing like a database. I just have to kind of get into a certain state and hope that good ideas come through, like tuning a radio to a mysterious radio station.

But if there was a scanner to make all of the ideas available… to combine the ideas to generate new ones… well, now, that would be interesting.

Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

The phantom goodbye

That awkward time when someone is physically with you, but mentally they’re checking their phone for their ride share to come.

You can talk to them and it seems like they can hear you, but they’re not really listening, like talking to a ghost.

And then, just like that, they disappear into the night.